Welcome to Westbury, where the wild west looks quite tame
The Joburg West suburb has been in the grip of drug barons and gangsters for years. After violence in the last weekend of February killed two and injured 11, Police Minister Beke Cele swept in for a crime prevention imbizo, revealing a four-point plan aimed at dealing with gangsterism in the area. Locals won’t be holding their breath.
The first bullet struck Cresando Otto on the chin, the second went through his heart.
His two killers had spotted him in a yard on Oleander Place in Westbury and opened fire.
Cresando’s death on Sunday afternoon, 26 February came off a particularly violent weekend that by Monday had killed two people and injured 11 in at least six shooting incidents.
The residents of Westbury had seen this all before. For years violence has come to this small Joburg West suburb in cycles. Sometimes it takes years but it always returns.
This latest flare-up was triggered by the shooting of suspected Fast Guns leader Keenan Ebrahim, on Thursday 23 February. What has followed is a shooting war between the Fast Guns and their rivals the Varados.
And it is not just the violence that once again is on repeat. On Tuesday morning, 7 March, many Westbury residents would have experienced a little déjà vu when they saw the black BMWs, complete with police escorts, arriving to drop off politicians at the Westbury Recreation Hall.
They had come for the ministerial crime prevention imbizo led by Police Minister Bheki Cele, with Gauteng Premier Lesufi Panyaza, Joburg mayor Thapelo Amad and police top brass.
It was not the first time that Cele had arrived in Westbury with the promise to end the community’s gang problem.
Back in 2018 the residents of Westbury took to the streets to protest the killing of Heather Petersen, a mother of six, who was hit by a stray bullet.
And five years before that, another government delegation, this time led by then President Jacob Zuma, had visited Eldorado Park after a mother had written a letter asking him to deal with the drug problem and gangs.
What was to follow were increased police patrols, arrests and raids on drug dens in Eldorado Park and Westbury. Then the operation was scaled down and the community lamented that everything returned to how it was before.
‘Sanitise this place, strip it and sanitise it’
On Tuesday Cele promised that the operation to clean up Westbury will continue until the job is done. “Sanitise this place, strip it and sanitise it,” Bheki told the police that were in the hall.
He outlined four points on how police would deal with gangsterism in Westbury:
First by keeping a strong police presence in the suburb, second by dealing with corruption within the police, third by bringing in extra detectives to investigate the pile of unsolved murder cases.
“And four, I want us to agree that we need to work with communities, so community structures will have to work with one another,” he said.
He also said that he wanted police to patrol on foot, rather than in their vehicles.
Once again the police’s Tactical Response Team (TRT), better known as the Amabherethe, together with the National Intervention Unit will lead the fight against criminals on the streets of Westbury.
But Cele stressed that the police alone could not solve the crime problem.
“It can’t be only the police to change the fortunes of the community. You have to mention other departments that will have to come in. You mention education, social development, justice and correctional services.”
Lesufi added that his administration had identified crime as enemy number one and they had released resources to hunt criminals.
“The time for talking is over,” he said.
Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, a researcher at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, told Daily Maverick that the problem with these government interventions is that they don’t curb crime and they cause frustration in these communities.
“It’s been an area where there has been a history of people coming in and then saying, yeah, we’ll deploy the TRT, and they put a lid on things for a while, and then it just flares up again the minute they’ve gone,” she explained.
Irish-Qhobosheane spent time in Westbury researching gang violence for a paper she co-authored titled: Ending the cycles of violence: gangs, protest and response in Western Johannesburg, 1994-2019.
100 Years of gangsterism
The paper describes how the gangs of western Joburg, in particular Sophiatown, have had a long history that stretches back over 100 years. In the early 20th century gangs like the Americans, Berliners, Gestapos and Vultures scratched a living through robbery, protection rackets and other petty crimes.
But by the 1990s, with the surge of drugs into South Africa and easy access to guns, the gangs had become more violent. It was during this period that the Fast Guns and the Varados began to establish themselves in Westbury.
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In an attempt to curb the growing violence gang members agreed on a peace deal in 1999 that became known as the Westbury Peace Process.
As Irish-Qhobosheane and her co-authors point out in their paper the 1999 truce had an effect in drastically reducing murders in the Sophiatown policing district.
The number of annual reported homicides in the area dropped from over 120 in 1998/99 to just under 60 in 2003/04.
“But it created a little bit of a vacuum which allowed these younger people to come through,” explained Irish-Qhobosheane.
One of this new breed of gangsters was Keenan Ebrahim, who was shot last month while driving his white Mercedes in Constantia Kloof.
To end these cycles of violence, Irish-Qhobosheane believes there is a need for smarter policing.
“I really think that what we need to be focusing on is effective arrests and the prosecution of the key players involved. Unless you get to the big drug barons in the area, you’re not really effectively dealing with the issues,” she said. “The problem also is that policing in the area is so corrupted.”
The Gauteng-Western Cape gangs link
She also believes that there should be better cooperation between investigators in Johannesburg and the Western Cape, because of the links these gangs have between the two provinces. It is also important, Irish-Qhobosheane says, in getting guns out of the hands of gangsters.
“It is one thing to raid and get the guns, but if you look at the SAPS annual report, every year the number of arrests and seizures related to illegal firearms is massive. You need to deal with cutting off the sources of those firearms, which are mainly State Departments.”
Other socioeconomic issues also needed to be addressed so as to make the gangster lifestyle less appealing to new recruits.
When Cele finished talking at the imbizo on Tuesday members of the audience gave him a standing ovation. They had bought into his vision that soon there could be an end to the violence that has plagued their suburb for so long.
Soon the black BMWs and their politicians were gone and Westbury was left to the odd police patrol making its way through the streets.
On Steytler Road a group of young men gathered outside a block of flats and laughed and posed for the filming TV crew the police were escorting.
“They are Varados,” someone whispered. The Varados VC sign chalked on Steytler Road revealed that this was indeed their territory. Watching from across the road, inside the Good Price supermarket was Bangladeshi shopkeeper Mehadi Hassan.
On the right side of his temple was the scar where a gangster’s bullet grazed his head. He was caught in the crossfire of a shootout between the Fast Guns and Varados, in his shop, last month. If the shooter’s aim had been millimetres to the right, Hassan would have become an added statistic to the latest violence.
Cresando Otto’s brother and sister weren’t at the imbizo. They have lost faith in the police. When they heard that Cresando had been shot just a street away they rushed to where he lay.
While they were trying to get him into the car, a police van, they said, drove past. It didn’t stop to help. The police hadn’t even come to see them.
“My brother would bring light to darkness, he would make people laugh. He died just because he was with the wrong guys,” said his sister Roxanne.
Cresando was affiliated with the Fast Guns, but wasn’t involved in anything violent, his family said. Last Sunday he was buried at Westpark cemetery.
“You know all we want is justice,” said Roxanne. But a code of silence, with witnesses refusing to talk to police, will likely make tracing Cresando’s killers extremely difficult and add to the pile of murder dockets detectives are battling to close. DM